Occupied but Empty Print
Written by John Ise, BT Contributor   
August 2017

The central corridor must find its mojo

TPix_JohnIse_8-17aking a Saturday stroll in downtown Miami Shores can be a lonely experience. Heading south on the downtown corridor of NE 2nd Avenue from NE 102nd Street, nary a soul was in sight other than my three yammering kids and two yapping dogs, all unruly and competing (or so it seemed) to see who’d be first to disobey my commands.

Passing Village Hall, the police station, the vacant Catholic Charities building, and Miami Theater Center, the kids, the canines, and I constituted the only sentient beings in sight. After a few blocks, we met a smattering of people congregated at Proper Sausages, Chase Bank’s ATM, and then reached our destination, a packed Starbucks, to guzzle the wickedly addictive Frappuccino. (Question: Is the Frappuccino a knockoff milkshake, or is a milkshake just an underachieving Frappuccino?)

The unfortunate truth is that downtown Miami Shores feels vacant, unoccupied, and architecturally uninspired. While it’d be an overstatement to say it’s dead, it’s not exactly what you’d call pulsating.

Don’t get me wrong -- the library is splendid, Cote Gourmet, Pizza Fiore, and Mr. Pasta are great pioneering eateries, and Miami Theater Center brings cultural enrichment to the desolate strip. But I sense a downtown could be so very much more.

And actually, downtown is almost fully (95 percent) occupied. It’s just that the 95 percent are banks, dental/doctor offices, tax preparation services, Realtors, and other service establishments. All fine in their own right, but not adding to downtown’s vibrancy. Downtowns should be busy, even buzzy, with people.

The early and primary culprit was the lack of sewers; Miami Shores was one the very few downtowns to rely on septic tanks. Lacking sewer lines boils down to the inability of aspiring restaurateurs to obtain county permits. While some existing restaurants have dealt with and existed with the Village’s septic system, others couldn’t, owing to the area’s limited capacity to process wastewater. And without an adequate system to process the volume of wastewater that restaurants typically generate, the county health department and DERM balked at issuing permits for any new restaurants.

Funded through a special taxing district of properties along NE 2nd Avenue, the $5 million system was finally activated, to little fanfare, in mid-June, a year late. Sensing a PR opportunity, I pitched to some unfortunate Village personnel that rather than the run-of-the-mill ribbon-cutting ceremony, the mayor could hold an inaugural “first flush.” The response: “Um, I’ll take it under advisement.”

At any rate, the sewer activation is a monumental step forward in sowing the seeds of downtown’s vitality, and should be acknowledged as such. All that remains is for building owners to connect to the system and abandon their existing septic systems, made all the easier with DERM permitting the Village to file one collective “master permit.”

With the infrastructure challenge resolved, the aesthetic quality of downtown remains…well…blah. Toward that end, the Redevelopment Management Associates (RMA) consultancy group conducted an analysis last year, with community input, seeking to establish a unified architectural vision for NE 2nd Avenue. The result of six-month effort included crafting predetermined styles for new developments, parameters for existing buildings to renovate, and the development of an architectural design manual to guide current and future investors in downtown.

Local architect Victor Bruce sees RMA’s recommendations, coupled with the sewers, as more progress. “It’s as if we moved out of the Dark Ages straight into the Renaissance,” he says. He expects the face of downtown Miami Shores to change noticeably within five years.

Megan Gerstel, executive director of the Miami Shores Chamber of Commerce, shares Bruce’s optimism, noting that she’s already seen an uptick in investor interest in the downtown corridor. The task now is to ensure that the development fits the Village’s small-town character. A desire for locally owned independent businesses is the bias.

“We definitely do not want to become a Lincoln Road,” Gerstel states. “We’re not seeking the Gap.”

While intuitively that seems to make sense, I wonder if we make too much of the franchise vs. independent business debate. Is it always Salty Donut, yes, but Dunkin’ Donuts, no? Who else does sushi in the Shores other than Iron Sushi? And nothing…nothing better come between me and my Frappuccino.

Patrice Gillespie-Smith, chair of the chamber’s Downtown Advisory Committee, counters that Villagers want something unique, local, and distinctively Miami Shores. While applauding recent successes, she bemoans the leviathan county permitting processes that can add up to tens of thousands of dollars and months of time to prospective businesses. Alas, it seems to be the price of doing business in Miami-Dade.

Mayor Mac Glinn points to the recent progress as the fruit of years of hard work and planning. Last year the Village relaxed restrictions on beer, wine, and liquor sales so long as the establishment garners 50 percent of its revenues from food sales. Also last year, parking requirements were eased so that new establishments can count any nearby existing parking spot toward the minimum required, not just those directly behind the establishment.

Looking forward, the mayor sees the need for better parking signage and will seek further traffic-calming of NE 2nd Avenue through adding medians and more frequent crosswalks. He hopes that the current exploration of having the vacant Catholic Charities building become a temporary public market for local pop-up restaurants, artisans, and vendors might spark some life into the corridor.

The hot potato question in all this is: Do we really need a denser, up-zoned downtown corridor? For too many South Floridians, the only words more scary than “more sprawl” is “more density.”

It may be that the remaining ingredient to downtown vitality is a slight boost in density that adheres to smart design. Clearly, we’d never want to become a Brickell, but adding a story or two to existing structures might be just what can anchor future restaurants and cafés economically. “Retail and restaurants on the ground level, with offices and/or residential on the second or third floor, seem to work,” Victor Bruce notes. With sewers, that’s now possible.

When done correctly, density can benefit everyone. People walk and bike more, they’re healthier, and they produce less pollution. But it also means change, and in the minds of many Shores residents, the prospect of more people moving in will undoubtedly activate NIMBY instincts and resistance.

Ultimately, what makes a great downtown is not the sewer system, the buildings, restaurants, or cafés. It’s the people. As famed urbanist Jan Jacobs wrote, “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”


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